Humane. Organic. Cage-free. Free-range. Free-run. Cruelty-free. Natural. With so many different designations, it's hard to know which egg is the best egg
So, I decided to take a little journey down the path towards “cruelty-free” eggs and see what I could find out.
First, the environment or animal welfare are a concern, conventional eggs just don’t cut it. These chickens are packed into cages where they each get a space about the size of a letter-sized piece of paper. They go in a cage as soon as they are mature enough to lay eggs and never leave it until they are slaughtered at about two years at the oldest. This is a fraction of their natural lifespan, since chickens can live to be 10 to 15 years old.
Some promote cage-free eggs as a cruelty-free alternative. But how cruelty-free is it?
What do "free-range," "free-run" and "cage-free" really mean?
Labels such as “free-range” or “free-run” mean that the hens are not kept in cages. But they are often kept indoors at almost the same density as if they were in cages (which is basically the same as chickens raised for meat). There is also no regulation of these labels, which means that consumers have no way of knowing if the eggs that they are buying are really any better for the chickens than eggs from caged hens.
The BC Certified Organic label is a regulated, third-party certification system. These hens have access to the outdoors and have space to move. On the surface, this seems like an immense improvement over caged eggs. We’ve all seen pictures of hens outdoors in the sun. It looks like a very nice life.
But is it truly “cruelty-free”?
Unfortunately, no. All egg farms have to make money in order to keep operating. The rate of egg laying drops off when a hen is a couple of years old. When it starts to cost more to feed and care for a hen than can be made on her eggs, she is sent off to slaughter. Even though we know they can have a 10 to 15-year lifespan, even these chickens are killed at around two years of age.
The slaughter process is essentially the same whether the chickens have been raised organically or not. There are no farms that keep on feeding and caring for hens for the years after they stop laying eggs. It’s a simple matter of economics.
Also, we tend to forget about the systems that support the farms. There are few if any farms that have their own hatcheries. Farms get their chicks mailed to them at one day old from large hatcheries. There are no organic hatcheries in B.C., so chicks come from the same hatcheries as caged eggs. Because males don’t lay eggs, they are killed at one day old. Roughly half of the chicks born are male. For each and every hen that is laying eggs on a farm, there is a rooster who was killed at one day old because he was unnecessary.
How, then, can we ever hope to get “cruelty-free” eggs?
Backyard chickens not so humane
The Vancouver City Council voted recently to allow Vancouver residents to keep hens in their backyards. On the surface this would seem to offer the ultimate opportunity for “cruelty-free” eggs. But let’s take a closer look.
Let’s say we are allowed to have three hens and roosters will not be allowed. This means that no matter where we get our hens, there are still unwanted, surplus roosters who are going to be killed soon after they’ve hatched. This is an unfortunate fact of any kind of egg production system, even a backyard one.
Our three hens are going to stop laying as many eggs after a few years. When they go from one egg each per day to one egg each per week, what do we do? Do we replace them? Or do we keep them around as our pets? Will we send them off to slaughter? Will we kill them in our backyards ourselves?
The keeping of chickens in the city may also introduce many of the same issues as pet ownership does currently. This is one of the reasons why essentially all of the local animal welfare groups came out in opposition to allowing the keeping of chickens in Vancouver. Will people have to go out to Abbotsford to buy chickens, or will they be able to buy them in pet stores? Shelters all over the city are full of unwanted cats, dogs, rabbits, guinea pigs, hamsters and exotic birds. What is going to happen with unwanted chickens? If there is a demand for chickens in the city, there will be people trying to fill that demand. Will this mean that people will buy chickens on impulse? Will they be given as gifts?
There is also the risk of accidental roosters. Sexing of chicks is simply not 100 percent accurate, and so there will certainly be cases in which people buy young chicks—or possibly even hatch eggs themselves—and end up with a rooster. What will happen to that rooster? According to the Stanley Park Ecology Society, there have been cases of roosters being abandoned in Stanley Park, which is not a humane option for dealing with an unwanted male chickens.
There is also the possibility that keeping chickens will attract more predators into the city. Vancouver has a fairly unique situation in that we’ve managed to keep a balance between humans and urban wildlife such as coyotes, raccoons and birds of prey. If someone's chickens get attacked by a coyote, will this result in a cull of predators? This seems like a large risk to take.
Backyard hens can get us closer to “cruelty-free,” but they still require that we support cruel systems. As long as less productive hens are being sent off to slaughter and roosters are being killed at one day old, no system can be considered truly cruelty-free.
Glenn Gaetz is a director of Liberation BC, a Vancouver-based animal rights group (website / blog). He grew up on a small homestead in Vermont with cows, pigs and goats. His experiences with animals led him to work toward bettering the lives of all animals used for human purposes. He has served as a director of Vancouver Rabbit Rescue and Advocacy and done volunteer work with many other animal rights and animal welfare groups. One of his fondest memories is of the time he spent as an intern at Farm Sanctuary’s California shelter, where he cared for all sorts of farm animals, including chickens, turkeys, pigs and goats.
Glenn and his wife raised a broiler rooster rescued from a slaughterhouse in their home for three months before placing him in a permanent home in a sanctuary.